Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017)


Opening today and running for (most of) the next week at the Northwest Film Forum is the latest film from Frederick Wiseman, the 87 year old documentarian who may very well be the best director of the last ten years. Coming to prominence at the height of the cinema-verité trend, debuting with Titicut Follies fifty years ago, Wiseman has spent his career examining institutions and the ways in which they do and do not serve their public. The verité label doesn’t quite apply to him (and he’s often rejected it), his films are too carefully organized, his images too artfully designed. There’s a fly on the wall element to be sure, along side his disdain for direct interviews (though he’s not above filming one of his subject being filmed by a journalist, as he did in Ballet for example). But his movies are too patient, too precise to be lumped together with the Pennebakers or Maysleses. His last decade of work has been mostly films about artistic organizations (La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym, National Gallery), along side profiles of communities both urban (In Jackson Heights) and academic (At Berkeley). Ex Libris, combines both elements into an examination of the interactions between the organization and its community. Alternating, as he has in all these recent films, between scenes of the institution being used with those of it being run, with interstitial shots establishing the various branches of the library system in their neighborhood, Wiseman makes an engrossing argument for the fundamental necessity of the public library, a space anyone can use for any number of reasons, from reading for pleasure to doing research to after school programs to expanding internet access to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. While at the same time the contrasting images of the wealthy donors who help fund the library and the desperately poor people who depend on it for everyday life points to the fundamental inadequacy of the library itself, of “education” alone as a means for creating a just society.  This library is the ultimate neo-liberal institution, the well-meaning bureaucrats who run it working as best they can to ameliorate the conditions of poverty just enough to hold back real change, while the philanthropic set pat themselves on the back for going to see Ta-Nahesi Coates get interviewed.